Against Supercommittee Transparency

The idea that private negotiations to cut the deficit are somehow bad is fatuous and ill-considered

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This week, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders began appointing the members of the so-called "supercommittee" -- the latest blue-ribbon commission assigned to tackle the deficit problem, this one created by the recent debt-ceiling legislation. Even before the appointments were announced, there was plenty of chest bumping from both sides, Republicans vowing never to consider tax increases and Democrats swearing to protect entitlement programs. So it's hard enough to believe that the supercommittee is going to manage to strike any kind of agreement.


But if there's one thing that could worsen the odds, it's the suddenly popular notion that the committee's deliberations ought to be thrown open to the public. "[F]rom the conversations I've had with the other leaders of both parties, I can tell you there's a strong commitment to having open hearings and a public process," House Speaker John Boehner told his members on Monday.

That's an absolutely terrible idea.

The committee's charge is to come up with $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reductions by November. It isn't hard to guess what sorts of ideas they'll consider because countless commissions before them have examined the problem and come up with a familiar list: cutting or eliminating big tax expenditures like the mortgage-interest deduction and the myriad special-interest provisions in the tax code; cutting (reforming, if you prefer) Medicare and Social Security, possibly through means testing and raising the eligibility age; cutting defense spending; and, of course, raising taxes, especially on the wealthy. And many more.

In fact, any reasonably intelligent high school student assigned the same task could draw on these earlier reports and probably produce a list not dissimilar to what the supercommittee might recommend (and do so with a lot less preening and drama). So the calls for transparency aren't grounded in any fear that the negotiators will hit upon some radical or dangerous new idea.

What's driving them is special-interest pressure. The current (and expensive) tax loopholes didn't get there by accident. Most got there as a direct result of lobbying on behalf of assorted powerful interests. That's what usually shapes the tax code. And that's why reforming it is so hard--by definition, you're working against these same powerful forces.

Anyone who genuinely cares about the deficit ought to welcome the idea of private negotiations, since these are far more likely to yield a positive result by creating a venue for candid exchange and limiting the input of the forces that ordinarily shape the tax code. It's the special interests that have the greatest investment in transparency, since that would allow them to pressure the negotiators and poison the political atmosphere in advance of any deal.


Image credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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